Written and Narrated by
Robert Prentice, J.D.
Business, Government & Society Department
McCombs School of Business
The University of Texas at Austin
Most athletes understand that to help preserve the spirit of fair and honest competition that makes all sports possible, they must follow the rules of the game. Athletes, like all the rest of us, must act with integrity. But – as in business – the high stakes and intense competition athletes face in the world of sports can present ethical challenges.
High-profile coaches and famous athletes have been stripped of titles, dropped from Hall of Fame voting ballots, and banned from sports for life due to doping, cheating, and other breaches of integrity. For example, Olympic sprinting champion Ben Johnson was stripped of his medals and banned from competing because he used illegal performance enhancing drugs. And the 2017 World Series baseball championship is forever tainted because many of the winning Houston Astros’ players were part of an illegal scheme to steal their opponents’ pitching signs.
How can we avoid the ethical pitfalls that have tripped up other athletes? Well, just as research in sports psychology has improved people’s athletic performance, research in the psychology of moral decision-making – called behavioral ethics — can improve people’s ethical performance.
Behavioral ethics focuses on why good people sometimes make bad moral decisions and don’t live up to their own ethical standards. It describes the social and organizational pressures (like obedience to authority), the psychological biases and decision-making shortcuts (like the overconfidence bias), and situational factors (like stress and time pressure) that can lead all of us to make unethical choices. Sometimes, these missteps are made consciously; but more often, our poor moral choices are made subconsciously, which is why studying behavioral ethics is so important.
Learning about behavioral ethics gives us the chance to make better moral decisions by guarding against these biases and pressures that impact our thinking and decision-making. Consider the conformity bias, which is our tendency to take cues for proper behavior from our peers rather than use our own independent moral judgment. Research shows that if athletes believe their competitors are doping, they are more likely to dope themselves. And if college coaches believe that other coaches are cheating in recruiting, they’re more likely to cheat also. Often, this won’t even seem wrong because “everybody does it.”
Obedience to authority is another potential pitfall for moral decision-making. For example, we may do something we’re uncomfortable with simply because a coach, or a teacher, or a parent told us to. Sometimes, we consciously choose to do wrong to not lose playing time or to avoid being cut from the team. But more often, we unconsciously go along with what we’re asked to do because our brain is hard-wired to be obedient to authority. As the research shows, the pleasure centers of our brains light up when we please people in charge.
These behavioral ethics concepts — and many others covered in Ethics Unwrapped — introduce the ethical traps that the human mind can lay for us. We can all benefit from making the subconscious conscious.
And these ideas can help all of us live up to our own values and improve our moral decision-making. Integrating behavioral ethics into daily life, can make our friends and parents proud of us, and help our teams and communities flourish.